By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
The last time the Browns saw Andy Dalton, he was taking baby steps as a starting NFL quarterback.
That was on Sept. 11. It might as well have been a lifetime ago.
Since that game, Dalton has gone on to establish himself as one of the top rookies of the class of 2011. He has contributed plenty to the Bengals’ surprising 6-4 start, and has steadily grown into a solid passer and leader.
Dalton had one of his worst performances last week, throwing a season-high three interceptions in the Bengals’ 31-24 loss against the Ravens. But it didn’t diminish how far he has come since his previous encounter with the Browns.
Dalton didn’t even finish that game. He missed the second half with a wrist injury, leaving Bruce Gradkowski to lead the Bengals through the balance of their 27-17 victory and provide the decisive points on a quick-snap touchdown throw to rookie receiver A.J. Green.
When the Browns study videotape of Dalton, they will see, first, the quarterback who displayed remarkable comfort, command, and poise while making only his first regular-season start as a pro. They will also see a young man who has consistently made good decisions with the ball and who quickly found a rapport with a highly talented group of receivers, beginning with Green.
Green missed the Baltimore game with a knee injury, and that did seem to factor into Dalton’s interceptions because he didn’t have a receiver with Green’s exceptional combination of size and athleticism to pull the ball away from the defenders. Another dilemma for Dalton is the absence of a strong running game. The Bengals are averaging only 3.8 yards per carry.
In his last two games, Dalton has shown a tendency to force throws when under pressure. It would then seem to make perfect sense for the Browns to crank up the heat on him. Emmanuel Stephens, the new starter at right end in place of Jayme Mitchell, will need to be at the very top of his game to have success against Bengals standout left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Left end Jabaal Sheard will need to be a major force, with tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor opening things up for both ends inside.
It will be interesting to see how aggressive Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron will be with various blitz combinations involving linebackers and defensive backs, especially with the many talented pass-catchers Dalton has at his disposal.
Still, it is likely to take an exceptional pass-rushing effort to force the rookie into more mistakes as he made the last two weeks.
He already has demonstrated against the Browns that he can be pretty effective when mostly comfortable in the pocket.
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